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ORIGINAL ONLINE ON UPSWING

Firms rushing to adapt existing properties to Web

Orion is the latest entertainment company to jump into the online content game. Microsoft and America Online are shelling out big bucks for content deals, signing up indie producers to create content for those companies’ Web areas. MGM is working to develop original productions, Sony has developed online versions of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” and other studios reportedly are looking into original online fare.

On the TV side, Lifetime has launched a slate of online dramas, and the Discovery Channel continues to wow cybersurfers with a compelling package of science and human-interest pieces. In fact, Discovery is planning to launch a redesigned site Monday.

Orion’s plans are a little different. According to Jeannette Draper, VP of creative affairs at Orion Interactive, the company plans to launch “Blue Head,” a CD-ROM and Web game derived from one of the films in its library. The CD-ROM and Web site will feature appearances by Corbin Bernsen, Elliott Gould, Rick Rossovich and Paul Sorvino. The CD is due out in late March, with the Web site set to bow March 15.

In addition to the online installments featuring the name thesps, other episodes will allow users to assume the role of a police detective searching for the killer of a talkshow host. Action takes place in “a sexy chat club called the Hard Drive,” Draper said.

“Our focus is doing original content with existing characters,” Draper explained. “The homevideo library of Orion has been dormant while the studio sorted out bankruptcy troubles. But now we have the opportunity to open up all the catalogs.

“It’s hard to vie for visibility with all the Web sites,” she added. To address that problem, Orion plans to spin off original interactive stories using popular characters like Robocop in 3-D applications. The company is developing a series of Robocop properties, including a kids TV series, a CD-ROM game and a Web site.

Draper said Orion also plans to work with standup comics to launch original online content.

As for online revenue, the company is looking to an advertiser-supported model.

“We’ll be taking a slate of properties and going to advertisers. We plan to do that a little more aggressively than other studios have,” Draper said.

She also acknowledged that other online companies haven’t had overwhelming success in lining up sponsors. In fact, most online companies end up paying out more in production and administrative costs than the revenues they bring in.

“American Cybercast came the closest this year,” Draper said, referring to Web companies selling ads to support original content. “We’ll be different, in that we’ll be promoting recognizable properties right off the bat.”

With Robocop, Draper said, “It should be easier for people to relate to the material when there’s already been a $20 million marketing campaign behind it.”

Part of the game in attracting advertisers, of course, is attracting eyeballs to the site. Toward that end, Orion is planning a “Blue Heat” marketing blitz, buying space in publications such as inflight magazines and Cigar Aficionado.

“We’re prepared to make a grand entrance,” Draper said. “There are hard costs associated with getting mindshare for products like this, but I’ve been told that 40% of purchasing activity is generated by word of mouth.”

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